Whilst stress can be associated with mental health problems, it is not, in itself, a medical diagnosis. Although almost all of us know what stress is from our own experiences it can be difficult to define exactly what it is.
The word stress refers to a person’s physical, mental and emotional response to a stressor.
Stressors can be either biological or psychosocial.
Biological stressors include caffeine, nicotine, some medications, physical pain, and extreme cold or heat. These stressors directly induce the body’s stress response without any conscious evaluation from the brain.
However most stressors encountered in day to day life are psychosocial.
A psychosocial stressor is a situation (real or imagined) which is perceived to be demanding.
The effect of the resulting stress response on the person’s feelings and behaviour can be either positive (eustress) or negative depending on whether the person feels able to cope with the situation.
For example, a tight but achievable project deadline may motivate someone to work more efficiently than normal leading to greater productivity.
On the other hand an excessive workload which seems unmanageable may lead to feelings of overwhelm and reduced productivity.
The key message being that with psychosocial stressors it is not the situation per se that triggers the stress response but the person’s perception of the demands of the situation in relation to his / her ability to cope.